The Place I Live In and With
I want to say a few words about the mechanics of church. This will not be painful.
In other words, I’m not much interested in discussing religion, or spirituality. I could see having an open, interesting discussion about that but I don’t see it on the horizon. Attitudes seem pretty hardened.
But my wife works for a church, and I therefore spend a lot of time in churches. I’m very comfortable in churches. I know where the power lies (church secretaries, mostly). I no longer fear being judged for my irreligious, even sacrilegious, thoughts. Although I might do some judging of my own, depends. I’ve got some work to do.
I’m a pastor’s spouse, although you shouldn’t really think of it that way. I’ve known quite a few spouses of ministers, almost all of them women, and that’s a whole other ballgame (I should note that none of these female pastors were senior at their churches, meaning their responsibility for the entire congregation was divided, and thus their husbands weren’t going to be fulfilling a conventional spousal role anyway).
I’ve liked all the pastors’ wives I’ve known, by the way. One remains a good friend, years after the fact. The current one is also a good friend. I mean, I generally like people anyway.
In my case, though, we’ve got some special circumstances. My wife’s primary role is as a musician (her title is Associate Pastor for Music & Worship), and while she delivers sermons and prepares liturgies and offers pastoral care, it’s what’s called a tentmaker position (taken from St. Paul’s vocation). She has a main job, in other words, and her church work is a side gig. This is becoming more common as church attendance at mainline Protestant churches declines (I’m not sure how the megachurches are doing; numbers are overall just going down in general).
I’m not sure any of that really matters. I joked the other day that I didn’t have any of the pressure of the traditional pastor’s spouse, because I was a guy, etc., and we could all chuckle and acknowledge the double standard we all know exists while at the same time note that I’m the one who bakes the cookies. And the bread for communion. I feel pretty good about that part of the job.
I’m also an ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as a ruling elder (this is a funny name and I like to make jokes, but it only means that I sit on a board that makes the decisions that have to be made in any organization. I have no superpowers. I do know most of the combinations to the door locks).
And here’s the truth—none of this matters, or compels me to do anything I wouldn’t normally do. Church serves as the main social contact for me, for one thing, and has for years (working at home, duh). It expands my network of friends—some of my favorite people are there, and range from teenagers to octogenarians (or higher; I sometimes don’t ask).
I sing in my wife’s choir, and as much as I bitch about the commute and how lost I can get, with not-so-good hearing on one side and actually no one else singing my part most of the time, and then just general lack of sight-singing skills (although much better now), this is a good thing. Singing is a good thing; a recent study suggested that just 20 minutes a day of singing can produce remarkable effects in terms of mental health and just general health. Sing, people.
Let me fill this out a bit more. We have another tentmaker associate pastor, who is my friend Maggie. Maggie is from Scotland, and since I love vowel sounds (and the Scottish accent, especially her western, Glasgow, working-class one, is easily the most musical accent in English in my opinion) I can listen to Maggie all day, including when she preaches (if you watched her, and looked at me, I bet you’d see me mouthing certain words she’s saying, trying to match the sound). Maggie serves as Associate Pastor for Compassion, Justice, & Peace, which is her calling. For years she was executive director of a local homeless advocacy group, and now covers the same social justice issues in her position at a local university.
And her kids are all amazing.
So this is how it works for me. I do volunteer work for this tiny church, mostly helping out with the website, newsletter, and social media. I arrive early because of choir, set up the audio recording equipment, sing, occasionally read, sometimes serve as assistant minister, edit the audio file into excerpts and post it usually Sunday afternoons. I sometimes take videos and photos during the service and edit it into little one-minute reviews. This is all fun and calls to my interests.
There’s a little more.
This a smallish church, with 40-50 people in attendance most Sunday mornings. We share the building with a Spanish-speaking, more fundamentalist (in a small way) congregation that’s much bigger and we do fine (I sneak in sometimes to listen to the music, although they have a strong charismatic approach and so there’s a lot of emotional moments that aren’t any of my business. I do like trying to translate the Spanish).
We have a yearly budget that is easily less than the annual income of a couple of our members (at least). It’s a remarkable display of managing a small community collectively, and it works. New people show up, and we move on. Community.
Our senior pastor, my friend Scott, alluded to a poem by Seattle poet Denise Levertov from 50 years ago, called A Cure of Souls. The cure (or curing) of souls is an old expression in the church, particularly the Roman Catholic church, but Scott pointed out that by changing the article to the indefinite “A” Levertov had created a new collective noun of sorts. Like a pride of lions, or a murder of crows, or a coven of witches, or a herd of cows. A cure of souls. That would be us.
We went off in a slightly different direction, but my neurons lit up with a nice metaphor. I used it in this week’s column, in fact, talking about Come From Away, the musical I saw last Friday. I’ll take inspiration anywhere.
This is too long, so I’ll wrap it with my original point. These pastors—JK, Maggie, and Scott—are easily three of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a few. In fact, some of the smartest people I know have been pastors, even if they’ve moved out of the profession. Intimidating intelligence. I learn a lot, and count on these people for a lot.
Here’s the rub, though. One of the jobs of a church pastor is to serve as a counselor, which is what we call pastoral care. People have issues, personal ones, spiritual ones, desperate ones. This is one of the benefits of having a community like this.
I don’t have a pastor. I never have. I missed that part, and I miss it still.
We’re just too connected on a personal level. We socialize. My pastors are my friends (and my wife). They’re not the people I will take personal, intimate details to (excluding my wife, but then, you know, marriages; a neutral ear could be handy, but that’s not in the cards).
This isn’t their fault. They would help me in any way they could, but we’re just too close. I socialize with these people, eat with them, go out with them.
And it’s always been the case. My wife effectively eliminates me in only this one specific way from the life of a church, where I spend a tremendous amount of time. I love all of it, but I wouldn’t mind a friendly ear from time to time.
Of course, my wife knows everyone in this business, at least locally. I’m not actively looking for an unfamiliar pastor to spill my soul to. Awkward.
It’s not a big deal. I just wish I could talk to someone, sometimes. Not about cosmic, spiritual, universal questions. Just questions I have.
And as much as I would have laughed at this years ago, when I wouldn’t step inside a church on a bet (or, at least, a wedding or funeral), I really wish I had a pastor. Nobody’s fault, and it’s always been this way. Gonna have to stick with blogging, I guess.
Notice that no religious opinions were harmed in this essay.